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Decision Time: ALT or Eikaiwa Instructor

When it comes to teaching in Japan, where would you rather be — at an eikaiwa or in a school classroom?

By 8 min read

New teachers coming to Japan to teach English face a binary choice right at the start: to work as an assistant language teacher (ALT) or an eikaiwa (private conversation school) instructor.

My first job in Tokyo in 2006 was with an eikaiwa company. I soon realized that teaching with that particular organization wasn’t a good fit for me and, at the earliest opportunity, I switched to ALT work the following April — initially with a dispatch company and later via direct hire.

Since then, I’ve worked in both spheres and while my own personal preference leans more toward ALT work, teaching at an eikaiwa is not without its attributes.

So, let’s break this down and look at the pros and cons for each role. Perhaps, if you’re one of those people sitting at home now with competing offers in front of you, I can offer some help with the decision.

First up: eikaiwa.

Advantages of eikaiwa work

1. No early morning starts

As a general rule, most eikaiwa jobs start mid-morning to early afternoon and continue on into the evening. This is to meet the needs of the majority of its students — who are either kids studying after school or adult professionals coming for lessons after work or on days off. For example, when I taught in Tokyo, my day would start just after lunch (around 12:30 p.m.) with the first class at 1 p.m. and my last class usually around 8:30 p.m.

Within this time frame, it’s unlikely you would teach more than six or seven classes. So, you’ll still have time for a lunch break as well as a bit of lesson planning time, too during your day.

Weekends are the busiest times and you’ll need to start a bit earlier on Saturdays and Sundays (usually around 10 a.m.). However, this also means you’ll be done by about 6 p.m. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys late nights and likes a lie-in in the morning, then teaching at an eikaiwa may be for you.

There are always shifts that need covered, last minute substitutions for absent teachers and other opportunities for extra work

2. Plenty of scope for overtime

The modern economic reality is that many teachers — myself included —  need to take on extra work (such as writing these wonderfully informative posts on teaching and living in Japan for GaijinPot) to keep the books balanced.

Working at an eikaiwa makes accomplishing this a lot easier. There are always shifts that need covered, last minute substitutions for absent teachers and other opportunities for extra work. Doing a bit of overtime always looks good in the eyes of bosses, too (if you’re the type looking to move up the career ladder).

3. Variety of classes and students every day

One of the biggest selling points for teaching at an eikaiwa is the diversity of students you will encounter. You could have a group of elementary-level housewives in one class, a student who is preparing to study in the U.S. next and a businessman who has lived abroad for years and just wants a chat to brush up his skills after that. No two days are ever the same and it certainly helps to ease the boredom.

4. Flexible holiday schedule

Unlike ALTs — who are usually compelled to take their holidays outside of  school terms — provided you give enough notice, most eikaiwa companies will allow you to take a holiday at any time of the year. This allows you a little more flexibility in planning and can make for considerable savings on flight costs and bookings.

Teaching at eikawa could be for you if:

you're new to Japan
you enjoy the nightlife and freedom that comes with a less structured schedule
you aren't worried about pay irregularities
you enjoy talking to people from all walks of life
you only plan to be in Japan for a few years
Now, let’s have a look at the unique features ALT work can offer.

Advantages of ALT work

Students in a Japanese high school.

1. Immerse yourself in Japanese

Unfortunately working at an eikaiwa means you will spend most of your time with other English speakers and in classes you are — mostly — not allowed to use Japanese, as students are paying for an English immersion environment.

ALT work is different. Outside of the Japanese teachers of English (JTE), chances are nobody at your school will speak English. Indeed, if you are assigned to an elementary school, you may well be the only English speaker onsite. This “sink or swim” environment is the perfect motivator for leveling up your Japanese quickly.

2. No evening or weekend work

Although ALT work usually involves an early start (around 8:15 or 8:30 a.m.), this also means an early finish — usually around 4:30 p.m.

Also, outside of special events that happen a few times a year (such as sports day or local cultural festivals), there is no weekend work. Any weekend work you must do is compensated with a weekday off in lieu (usually the following Monday).

So, as an ALT, you’ll have plenty of downtime — just make sure you make the most of it. 

3. Consistent salary and pay structure

Although there are some less reputable companies out there, most ALT dispatch firms pay staff a set monthly salary (though this can sometimes be reduced or removed in the summer). Eikaiwa, on the other hand, have in recent years shifted to a pay-per-class structure, creating instability for teachers, whose pay can drop considerably during quiet periods.

… there is some scope for moving up the career ladder as ALT, too — if you’re resourceful and have a mind for it.

Advocates for the eikaiwa format would argue that there is no limit to how much the salary can rise (or fall) depending on how many classes you teach. It’s a valid argument, though personally not one I subscribe to.

(At this point, you might be thinking, “Ah hah! Perhaps I will opt for a full-time gig as an ALT and work at a local conversation school as a side hustle!” If so, you may want to reconsider. It’s possible, but most ALT companies won’t give you the visa approval needed to do this. ALTs work on an Instructor visa while those teaching at eikaiwa recieve a Specialist in Humanities visa. You will need to get an official OK from your main visa sponsor to seek additional employment. Read our post on the differences between and Instructor and Specialist in Humanities visa to help decide if the choice is right for you.)

Though perhaps more limited in scope than teaching at an eikaiwa, there is some scope for moving up the career ladder as ALT, too — if you’re resourceful and have a mind for it.

4. Work outside the English teacher “bubble”

The “bubble” in which many new English teachers in Japan find themselves can seem very comfortable.

At first.

You’ll have the comfort of being able to get by only speaking English and any people you chum around with (or even date) within this sphere will most likely have a good grasp of English, too. However, it’s not a good place to be in the long term. I know people who have been in Japan over five years who still have very little command of the language and perhaps — more importantly — have zero awareness of local customs, traditions, rules and ideals.

ALT work offers not only an ideal environment in which to try and speak Japanese, but also the perfect scenario for a crash course in Japanese (and the country’s cultural norms). You’ll spend each day working alongside ordinary, everyday Japanese people, many of whom will have little or no interest in English or foreign culture. If you want to stay in Japan for a longer period of time, you’ll need to assimilate and acclimatize. Working as an ALT in a public school provides a great foundation from which to start.

Obviously, at the end of the day, it’s your call.

Teaching as an ALT could be for you if:

have been in Japan for awhile and have basic Japanese ability
like a regular Mon-Fri, 9-5 schedule with the same classes
value the security of a consistent paycheck
want to get to know ordinary Japanese people outside of the English-speaking bubble
have plans to settle in Japan for the medium to long term
Personally, I enjoy the stability and permanence that comes with seeing the same students each week, as well as the satisfaction that derives from watching them grow as their English evolves.

I’m also —in principle, at least — against the idea of a pay-per-class structure, since teachers often have no say in when and how classes are assigned. I like knowing when my day starts and ends, when my pay is going to hit the bank and exactly how much will be there when it does.

I also plan to stay here for good, so I need a job where I can continue to use and improve my Japanese. If you’re just here for a year or two, then that may not be your priority.

Whichever you decide, coming to Japan will be one of the biggest decisions you make. Enjoy your time, do your job and make the most of your downtime.

Above all else, remember this: No matter what an employer asks of you, your own health and happiness comes first. It should always be at the forefront of whichever choice you make.

Have you worked in an eikaiwa or as an ALT before? Have you done both? What advice would you give to those new to teaching in Japan? Tell us your thoughts in the comments! 

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